It’s interesting to note how our concepts of required personal space change over time. I can remember when I was very small (like 3 or 4) I wanted to be constantly in touch range of somebody. After my first day of school at age 6, I didn’t want anyone closer than three feet, except my parents. Touching, again for anyone except parents, was absolutely out of the question. I cannot recall any particular incident that might have triggered this. I just know that my first day of school changed everything.
My personal space needs have varied considerably since then, but I’ve never returned to that comfort in touch that I had as a small child, except with lovers. This gets to be a problem, sometimes, because I work with a lot of very “touchy” people. My coworkers love my hair, for example, and are forever coming up behind me and catching hold of my hair when it’s tailed back, or running their fingers through it. To them this is entirely normal, if only because my hair is long, straight, and real, all three of which are uncommon where I work; they’re curious because it’s different, so they touch. To me, these are the actions of a lover, and that kind of intimacy is unwelcome in the workplace. Hell, it’s unwelcome anywhere except in intimate circumstances, with people I’ve invited into that space. I’ve had to forcibly curb the urge to do physical violence, usually by grabbing and holding onto the nearest non-sentient object until the urge passes. If I’m caught off guard by a hair touch, the toucher is going to get hurt. The hair thing is extreme, and I think most likely I’ll have it all my life. Interestingly, those who are allowed to touch my hair are also encouraged to; if I hand you a brush, resign yourself to being there a while.
Almost everyone I know hugs. That’s another one that will set my teeth on edge, but it’s orders of magnitude easier than dealing with having my hair touched. Hugs are generally not sneak attacks, so I’ve got a few seconds to prepare. I can hug most of my family members, and most of my friends. I can tolerate it from people I know casually, if it’s quick and has a little space in between, but a handshake is still preferred. Strangers…umm..no. Stay back five feet, please.
Random touches, such as a hand on my arm or shoulder are only slightly more tolerable than touching my hair. Again, surprises will usually lead to violence, or at least extreme rudeness. I think the worst as far as random touches are those from people that I don’t like (and I probably don’t like them because they seem to feel the need to touch me if they’re talking to me). Usually if the offending appendage is not voluntarily removed within the first ten seconds of eye contact, it’s going to be forcibly removed, and usually my pulling away is the least violent of these reactions.
Having just perused a wikipedia article on the topic, I find that my comfort zone is not that much narrower than that of most westerners. My response to touch, however, based on my experiences and the responses of those around me when I react to unwelcome space violations, seems to be rather intense. Or maybe I’m just having to endure the wrong company—also a distinct possibility.
Though these responses have been in place most of my life, I have had them vary from time to time, depending on circumstance. After my first divorce, for example, the only way I could tolerate anyone closer to me than arm’s reach and a yardstick was to classify them as inanimate, which included refusing to make eye contact and ignoring conversation attempts until I was able to move enough to put safe space between us. After my second divorce, I had very nearly the opposite reaction. I was more able to tolerate people in my space than I had been in my entire adult life. This stage lasted about six months, then gradually returned to my “normal” space demand.
It’s somewhat comforting to know that at least one of my needs falls very nearly within the range of normal tolerance for my culture. But it also makes me wonder just what’s up with all these people surrounding me who have this obsession with touching others.
Maybe the need to touch is different from the need for personal space. Maybe broken people experience touch as nightmarish unless it’s invited. Maybe we interpret that as a violation of personal space, instead of a violation of person. Maybe it’s not just broken people, either, though I think if we’re honest, we’re all broken in one form or another.
Does it need fixing? The immediate response is, of course, no. The part of my psyche that hates touch, hates allowing anyone closer than five feet, hates strangers, hates change, that part of me says that it’s exactly what’s needed for survival. The rational part of me thinks this is excessive. Normal Consciousness says, “Do what you do. Make decisions one at a time, based on circumstance, then hug or hospitalize as needed.”
I can work with that, actually.